Roi J. Tamkin
I spent my life avoiding the military. My father served in the army, and seeing how he turned out hardened my heart against special service. I’m not a violent person, and I avoid confrontation. But after photographing Music Midtown 1999, I demanded combat pay from the Ink 19 editors.
I had spent the entire weekend with the same group of photographers as we moved from venue to venue taking pictures of the various acts. There were probably six to eight of us all working for local publications. I knew most of the shooters from lensing local shows. We’re a pretty tight bunch, and we’re all very courteous making sure we’re not in each other’s way when working. Shooting a concert from the pit requires coordination with the other shooters so you’re not stepping on someone’s equipment or popping the back of your head in front of another’s lens.
Music Midtown had been a wonderful weekend, and I was heading for the 99X stage for the finale. Hole was playing the last concert of the weekend festival. Suddenly, word filters through that all photogs had to be approved by Hole’s management. “What’s this crap?” I thought.
I entered the fenced-off 99X media area and walked right into a near riot. Instead of six or eight of us, there were thirty people with cameras all wanting to be heard. Some were shouting at the 99X media rep. Some where shouting at Hole’s management team. Some were just shouting. I went up to my buddies Spark and Rob to find out what was going on. They told me I was approved to shoot Hole, but there were going to be some changes.
The media rep gathered all the photogs together and issued the plan. We were divided into three groups of ten. Each group had one song to take pictures. One song! Group A was led into the pit. Group B was led under the stage! And Group C was hanging backstage. After the first song, Group A would exit, Group B would appear from under the stage to take their positions in the pit, then Group C would advance to underneath the stage. Looks good on paper.
Here’s what really happened. This is how twenty-nine courteous people became vicious wolves fighting for a clear shot of Courtney Love’s panties. This is how I saw bodies wounded and bleeding carried out on ambulance stretchers. How security personnel gave orders like seasoned battle commanders.
We were told that Group A was supposed to comprise ten photographers. Well, that was the first thing to be thrown out of the window. Photographers from bigger magazines and publications demanded to be part of the first group. That pissed off us locals, and when the media rep escorted the ten photographers to the pit, some of the locals tagged along.
Group B was told to get under the stage. Apparently, media reps have never been under a stage. It’s all metal rods, beams, and nails. I heard a couple of photographers go down, tripping over the scaffolding. Arms were cut against exposed nails and cameras were smashed against the metal beams.
I was in Group C, and was able to watch everything from the side of the stage. When the first song was over, I noticed Group A refused to exit the pit and Group B emerged from under the stage to be pushed around by security personnel and Group A.
For the second song, the media rep signaled us to take defensive positions under the stage. I moved between the scaffolding, trying to avoid tripping or scratching my head on the nails. I could hear the scuffling going on the pit, but I couldn’t see anything. Finally, when the second song ended, Group C emerged from under the stage. And what I saw frightened me. I emerged from under the stage to find blinding lights in my eyes. Spotlights aimed at highlighting Courtney’s panties were positioned too low, and I was temporarily disoriented.
Group A and Group B had refused to leave the pit, so now there were forty or so people in the pit. Security people were forcibly grabbing photographers, trying to pull them out of the area. The noise from the stage was deafening, and all I could hear was squealing guitars and five thousand screaming kids. I walked through the pit trying to find a spot to take pictures from when I realized I was stepping on people. The people in the audience were pushing against the kids who were pinned against the barricade. Bodies were tumbling over the wall.
I took a position to begin firing away with the camera when I felt something hit my head and warm liquid run down my neck. “I’ve been shot!” I thought. I reached my hand behind my head and realized I was hit with a cup of beer. At least I hope it was beer. From my foxhole, I could watch as more beer grenades were lobbed onto stage. Some hit the stage (and one hit Courtney), but most of the beer (or piss) landed in the photographers’ pit. I tripped over more bodies as I maneuvered to find a spot in the pit to take pictures.
Besides the music blaring in my ears, I could hear the kids crying for help and oxygen as they were mercilessly pressed against the barricade. The security team rushed to yank out the crushed victims before they asphyxiated. Plus, body surfers were breaching the barricade as they were handed over to security personnel. I watched as young bodies tumbled over the barricade. They were cut up, bruised and bleeding. The mosh pit was the battle zone as the wounded were handed over to medical staff just right of the stage.
I took very few pictures of the band, turning my camera instead into the crowd and firing away. I felt like Robert Capa documenting the Vietnam War. I ran the length of the pit stepping on more wounded as I captured the suffering in the front row. I prayed I wouldn’t step on a land mine.
When my one song was over, I was physically lifted and thrown towards the exit by a large security guard. I didn’t mind the abuse, though. I knew I had my Pulitzer Prize photo, and I was writing Congress for my Bronze Star for valor on the battlefield.